Ancient History & Civilisation


Building the Fleet [483 - 481 B.C.]

Come! Haul a black ship down to the shining sea for her first cruise.


ATHENIANS HAD BEEN SEAFARERS SINCE EARLIEST TIMES, BUT their ventures were always overshadowed by maritime powers from Asia Minor, the Near East, and the rest of Greece. Legend claimed that even in the days of the first king of Athens, Cecrops, the people of Attica had to contend with raiders who terrorized their coasts. Several generations later King Menestheus led a fleet of fifty ships to Troy as Athens’ contribution to the Greek armada, twelve hundred strong. The city’s record in the Trojan War was undistinguished, outshone even by the contingent from the little offshore island of Salamis under the leadership of Ajax. After the end of the Bronze Age the royal citadels throughout Greece gave way to Iron Age communities, and they in turn grew into prosperous city-states. New currents in overseas commerce and colonization left Athens behind. Cities like Corinth, Megara, Chalcis, and Eretria took the lead.

Meanwhile the noble clans of Athens were pursuing their own initiatives and policies with private warships, armies, trading contacts, royal guest-friends, and religious rites. Some of the most powerful Athenian families even seized and held strategic sites around the northern Aegean and Hellespont as private fiefdoms. The one thing they seem never to have done was to unite their ships and efforts into a state navy. Even the conquest of Salamis, the Athenian state’s first nautical mission since the Trojan War, was said to have been carried out by a single thirty-oared galley and a fleet of fishing boats. But the spirit of free enterprise that ran strong in the ship lords



of Attica was to remain a vital force within Themistocles’ new trireme fleet.

Actual naval battles were rare events in early Greek history. Homer knew nothing of fleet actions on his wine-dark sea, though in his Iliad and Odyssey he often cataloged or described ships of war. Their operations were limited to seaborne assaults on coastal towns (of which the Trojan War itself was just a glorified example) or piratical attacks at sea. As the centuries passed, two sizes of sleek, fast, open galley eventually became standard among the Greeks: the triakontor of thirty oars and the pentekontor of fifty. The traders, soldiers, or pirates who manned these galleys (often the same men), thirsting for gain and glory overseas, usually pulled the oars themselves

It was the Phoenicians of the Lebanon coast who literally raised galleys to a new level. These seagoing Canaanites invented the trireme, though exactly when no Greek could say. Enlarging their ships, the Phoenician shipwrights provided enough height and space to fit three tiers of rowers within the hull. Their motives had nothing to do with naval battles, for such engagements were still unknown. The Phoenicians needed bigger ships for exploration, commerce, and colonization. In the course of their epic voyages, Phoenician seafarers founded great cities from Carthage to Cádiz, made a three-year circumnavigation of Africa (the first in history) in triremes, and spread throughout the Mediterranean the most precious of their possessions: the alphabet.

The first Greeks to build triremes were the Corinthians. From their city near the Isthmus of Corinth these maritime pioneers dominated the western seaways and could haul their galleys across the narrow neck of the Isthmus for voyages eastward as well. The new Greek trireme differed from the Phoenician original in providing a rowing frame for the top tier of oarsmen, rather than having all the rowers enclosed within the ship’s hull. Some triremes maintained the open form of their small and nimble ancestors, the triakontors and pentekontors. Others had wooden decks above the rowers to carry colonists or mercenary troops. Greek soldiers of fortune, the “bronze men” called hoplites, were in demand with native rulers from the Nile delta to the Pillars of Heracles.

Like the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon, Corinth was both a great center of commerce and a starting point for large-scale colonizing missions. Triremes could greatly improve the prospects of colonizing ventures, being able to carry more of the goods that new cities needed: livestock and fruit trees; equipment for farms and mills and fortifications; household items and personal belongings. For defense against attack during their voyages through hostile waters, or against opposition as the colonists tried to land, the large crew and towering hull made the trireme almost a floating fortress.


The earliest known naval battle among Greek fleets was a contest between the Corinthians and their own aggressively independent colonists, the Corcyraeans. Though the battle took place long after the Corinthians began building triremes, it was a clumsy collision between two fleets of pentekontors. The outcome was entirely decided by combat between the fighting men on board the ships. Naval maneuvers were nonexistent. This primitive procedure would typify all Greek sea battles for the next century and a half.

Then, at about the time of Themistocles’ birth, two landmark battles at opposite ends of the Greek world brought about a seismic shift in naval warfare. First, in a battle near the Corsican town of Alalia, sixty Greek galleys defeated a fleet of Etruscans and Carthaginians twice their own size. How was this miracle achieved? The Greeks relied on their ships’ rams and the skill of their steersmen rather than on man-to-man combat. Shortly afterward, at Samos in the eastern Aegean, a force of rebels in forty trireme transports turned against the local tyrant and crushed his war fleet of one hundred pentekontors. In both battles victory went to a heavily outnumbered fleet whose commanders made use of innovations in tactics or equipment. Ramming maneuvers and triremes thus made their debut in the line of battle almost simultaneously. Together they were to dominate Greek naval warfare for the next two hundred years.

Now everyone wanted triremes, not just as transports but as battleships. Rulers of Greek cities in Sicily and Italy equipped themselves with triremes. In Persia the Great King commanded his maritime subjects from Egypt to the Black Sea to build and maintain trireme fleets for the royal levies. The core of Persian naval power was the Phoenician fleet, but the conquered Greeks of Asia Minor and the islands were also bound by the king’s decree. All these forces could be mustered on demand to form the huge navy of the Persian Empire. Themistocles believed that Athens’ new trireme fleet might soon face not only the islanders of Aegina but the armada of the Great King as well.

While many cities and empires jostled for the prize of sea rule, ultimate success in naval warfare called for sacrifices that few were willing or able to make. Only the most determined of maritime nations would commit the formidable amounts of wealth and hard work that the cause required, not just for occasional emergencies but over the long haul. With triremes the scale and financial risks of naval warfare escalated dramatically. These great ships consumed far more materials and manpower than smaller galleys. Now money became, more than ever before, the true sinews of war.

Even more daunting than the monetary costs were the unprecedented demands on human effort. The Phocaean Greeks who won the historic battle at Alalia in Corsica understood the need for hard training at sea, day after exhausting day. In the new naval warfare, victory belonged to those with the best-drilled and best-disciplined crews, not those with the most courageous fighting men. Skillful steering, timing, and oarsmanship, attainable only through long and arduous practice, were the new keys to success. Ramming maneuvers changed the world by making the lower-class steersmen, subordinate officers, and rowers more important than the propertied hoplite soldiers. After all, a marine’s spear thrust might at best eliminate one enemy combatant. A trireme’s ramming stroke could destroy a ship and its entire company at one blow.

Themistocles had specified that Athens’ new ships should be fast triremes: light, open, and undecked for maximum speed and maneuverability. Only gangways would connect the steersman’s small afterdeck to the foredeck at the prow where the lookout, marines, and archers were stationed. The new Athenian triremes were designed for ramming attacks, not for carrying large contingents of troops. By committing themselves completely to this design, Themistocles and his fellow Athenians were taking a calculated risk. For many actions, fully decked triremes were more serviceable. Time would tell whether the city had made the right choice.

The construction of a single trireme was a major undertaking: building one hundred at once was a labor fit for Heracles. Once the rich citizens who would oversee the task received their talents of silver, each had to find an experienced shipwright. No plans, drawings, models, or manuals guided the builder of a ship. A trireme, whether fast or fully decked, existed at first only as an ideal image in the mind of a master shipwright. To build his trireme, the shipwright required a wide array of raw materials. Most could be supplied locally from the woods, fields, mines, and quarries of Attica itself. Many local trades and crafts would also take part in building the new fleet.

First, timber. The hills of Attica rang with the bite of iron on wood as the tall trees toppled and crashed to the ground: oak for strength; pine and fir for resilience; ash, mulberry, and elm for tight grain and hardness. After woodsmen lopped the branches from the fallen monarchs, teamsters with oxen and mules dragged the logs down to the shore. The shipwright prepared the building site by planting a line of wooden stocks in the sand and carefully leveling their tops. On the stocks he laid the keel. This was the ship’s backbone, an immense squared beam of oak heartwood measuring seventy feet or more in length. Ideally this oak keel was free not only of cracks but even of knots. On its strength depended the life of the trireme in the shocks of storm and battle. Oak was chosen for its ability to withstand the routine stresses of hauling the ship onto shore and then launching it again. Once the keel was on the stocks, two stout timbers were joined to its ends to define the ship’s profile. The curving sternpost rose as gracefully as the neck of a swan or the upturned tail of a dolphin. Forward, the upright stempost was set up a little distance from keel’s end. The short section of the keel that extended forward of the stempost would form the core of the ship’s beak and ultimately support the bronze ram.

Between the stern- and stemposts ran the long lines of planking. In triremes the outer shell was built up by joining plank to plank, rather than by attaching planks to a skeleton of frames and ribs as in later “frame-first” traditions. For the ancient “shell-first” construction the builders set up scaffolds on either side of the keel to support the planking as the ship took shape. They cut the planks with iron saws or adzes. Because the smooth lengths of pine were still green from the tree, it was easy to bend them to shape. Along the narrow edges of each plank the builders bored rows of holes: tiny ones for the linen cords, larger ones for the gomphoi or pegs. The latter were wooden dowels about the size of a man’s finger that acted as tenons. Starting on either side of the keel, the shipwright’s assistants secured the rows of planks by matching the row of larger holes to the tops of the pegs projecting from the plank below, then tapping the new plank into place with mallets. The pegs, now invisible, would act as miniature ribs to support and stiffen the hull. No iron nails or rivets were used in a trireme.

Once the planks were in place, the shipwright’s assistants spent days squatting on the inside of the rising hull, laboriously threading linen cords through the small holes along the planks’ edges and pulling them tight. Greek farmers sowed linon or flax in autumn, tended and weeded the fields over the winter, and harvested the crop in spring when the blue flowers had faded. The stems were cut, soaked, and allowed to rot. After beating and shredding, lustrous white fibers emerged from the decayed husk and pith. Twisting these fibers into thread produced a substance with near-miraculous properties. Linen cloth and padding were impenetrable enough to serve in protective vests or body armor for hoplites on land and for marines on board ship, while a net of linen cords could hold a tuna or a wild boar. Yet linen could be spun so fine that one pound might yield several miles of thread. Unlike wool it would not stretch or give with the working of the ship at sea. Linen also possessed the very proper nautical quality of being stronger wet than dry.

The system of construction made a strong hull that could withstand severe shocks. Only after the hull was pegged and stitched with linen—or, as an Athenian would have said, gomphatos and linorraphos—did the builder insert the curving wooden ribs. And should a rock or an enemy ram punch a hole through the planking, a wooden patch could be quickly stitched into place to close the breach.

On top of the long slender hull the shipwright now erected the structure that set Greek triremes apart from their Phoenician counterparts: the wooden rowing frame or parexeiresia (that is, a thing that is “beyond and outside the rowing”). Sometimes referred to as an outrigger, the rowing frame was wider than the ship’s hull and in fact performed multiple functions.

First, the rowing frame carried the tholepins for the upper tier or thranite of oars, and its wide span allowed for a long rowing stroke. Second, side screens would be fastened to the rowing frame when the ship went into battle to protect the thranite rowers from enemy darts and arrows. And third, the top of the frame could support a covering of canvas or wood. On fast triremes such as Themistocles had ordered, white linen canvas was spread above the crew to screen them from the hot sun while rowing. On a heavy trireme or troop carrier, wooden planking would be laid down on top of the rowing frame to make a deck on which soldiers or equipment could be transported. Finally, the stout transverse beams that crossed the ship at the end of the rowing frame served as towing bars to tow wrecked ships or prizes back to shore after a battle.





As the great size of the rowing frame suggests, oars were the prime movers of the trireme. At two hundred per ship (a total that included thirty spares), Themistocles’ new fleet required twenty thousand lengths of fine quality fir wood for its oars. The long shaft had a broad, smoothly planed blade at one end, and at the other the handle ended in a round knob to accommodate the rower’s grip. One man pulled each oar, securing the shaft to the upright tholepin with a loop of rope or leather. The 62 thranite oarsmen on the top tier enjoyed the most prestige. Inboard and below them were placed the wooden thwarts or seats for the 54 zygian oarsmen and the 54 thalamians. The latter took their name from the ship’s thalamos or hold since they were entombed deep within the hull, only a little above the waterline. All the rowers faced aft toward the steersman as they pulled their oars.

Once all these wooden fittings of the hull were complete, it was time to coat the ship with pitch, an extract from the trunks and roots of conifers. Once a year pitch-makers tapped or stripped the resinous wood of mature trees. In emergencies they cut down the firs and applied fire to the logs, rendering out large pools of pitch in just a couple of days. Carters conveyed thousands of jars of pitch to the shipbuilding sites in their wagons. The poetical references to “dark ships” or “black ships” referred to the coating of pitch.

More than hostile rams or hidden reefs, the shipwrights feared the teredon or borer. Infestations of this remorseless mollusk could be kept at bay only by vigilant maintenance, including drying the hull on shore and applications of pitch. In summer the seas around Greece seethed with the spawn of the teredo, sometimes called the “shipworm.” Each tiny larva swam about in search of timber: driftwood, dock pilings, or a passing ship. Once fastened to a wooden surface, it quickly bored a hole by wielding the razorlike edge of its vestigial shell as a rasp. From that hiding place the teredo would never emerge. Once inside the hole it kept its mouth fixed to the opening so as to suck in the life-giving seawater. The sharp shell at the other end of the teredo’s body continued to burrow deeper. As the burrow extended into the timber, the animal grew to fill its ever-lengthening home.

Within a month the sluglike teredo could reach a foot in length. Now it was ready to eject swarms of its own larvae into the sea, starting a new cycle. Once planking and ribs were riddled with their holes, a ship might suddenly break up and sink in midvoyage. Even when a wreck reached the bottom of the sea, the teredo would continue its attacks. In a short time no exposed wood whatever would be left to mark the ship’s resting place. Through conscientious maintenance—new applications of pitch, drying out and inspection of the hulls, and prompt replacement of unsound planks—an Athenian trireme could remain in active service for twenty-five years.

The trireme’s design approached the physical limits of lightness and slenderness combined with maximum length. So extreme was the design that not even the thousands of wooden pegs and linen stitches could prevent the hull from sagging or twisting under the stresses of rough seas or even routine rowing. On Athenian triremes huge hypozomata or girding cables provided the tensile strength that the wooden structure lacked. A girding cable weighed about 250 pounds and measured about 300 feet in length. Each ship carried two pairs. Looped to the hull at prow and stern, the cables stretched around the full length of the hull below the rowing frame. The ends passed inside where the mariners kept them taut by twisting spindles or winches. Just as pegs and linen cords formed the joints of the hull, the girding cables acted as the ship’s tendons.

The trireme required many other ropes as well. Made of papyrus, esparto grass, hemp, or linen, ropes supplied the rigging for the mast and sail, the two anchor lines, the mooring lines, and the towing cables. The ship’s tall mast and the wide-reaching yards or yardarms that held the sail were made from lengths of unblemished pine or fir. For the sail, the women of Athens wove long bolts of linen cloth on their upright looms. Sailmakers then stitched many such bolts together into a big rectangle. Despite their great weight—and their great cost—the mast and sail were secondary to the oars and, when battled threatened, were removed from the ship altogether and left on shore. Some triremes also carried a smaller “boat sail” and mast for emergencies.

The ship’s beak had already been fashioned in wood as part of the hull. To complete the trireme’s prime lethal weapon, the ram, metalworkers had to sheathe the beak with bronze. The one hundred rams needed for Themistocles’ triremes required tons of metal—a gigantic windfall for the bronze industry. Bronze, an alloy of nine parts copper to one part tin, does not rust and is more suitable than iron for use at sea. Some of the bronze poured into the rams of the Athenian triremes was recycled, melted down from swords that had been wielded in forgotten battles, from keys to vanished storerooms, images of lost gods, and ornaments of beautiful women long dead. Master craftsmen made the rams with the same lost-wax method that they used to cast hollow bronze statues of gods and heroes for the temples and sanctuaries.

The form of the ram was first modeled in sheets of beeswax directly onto the wooden beak, so that each would be custom made for its ship. As the artists worked the wax onto the beak, it warmed up and softened, becoming easier to handle. At the ram’s forward end the wax was built up into a thick projecting flange, triple-pronged like Poseidon’s trident. When every detail of the ram had been modeled, the wax sheath was gently detached from the wood and carried over to a pit dug in the sand of the beach.

The next step called for clay, the same iron-rich clay that went into Athens’ red and black pottery. With the wax model turned nose downward in the pit, clay was packed around its exterior and into its conical hollow to create a mold. Thin iron rods forged by the blacksmiths were pushed through the wax and the two masses of clay. When the wax was entirely encased in the clay except for its upper edge, the massive mold was inverted and suspended over a fire until all the wax was melted out. A hollow negative space in the exact shape of the ram had now been formed inside the packed clay. It remained only to fill the mold with molten bronze. But this was a complex and difficult undertaking.

Wood fires could not produce the necessary heat; the process required charcoal. A trireme’s ram had to be cast in a single rapid operation. First the bronze workers erected a circle of small upright clay furnaces around the rim of the pit. A channel led from the foot of each furnace to the edge of the mold. Broken bronze, whether from ingots or scrap, was divided among the furnaces. With the lighting of the charcoal, the metal in each furnace quickly became a glowing, molten mass. At a signal, the bronze workers and their apprentices removed the clay stoppers from all the furnaces. Simultaneously the bright hot streams poured down the channels and filled the hollow in the clay mold left by the melting of the wax. The casting happened with a rush, and the bronze cooled and hardened quickly. When the clay mold was broken (never to be used again), the bronze ram itself, smooth, dark, and deadly, saw the light for the first time. After cutting away the iron rods, finishing off the back edge, and polishing the surface, the bronze workers slid the new ram into place over the trireme’s wooden beak, fastening it securely with bronze nails.

Quarrymen and stone workers provided fine white marble from Mount Pentelicus near the city, and from thin slabs of this marble the sculptors carved a pair of ophthalmoi or “eyes” for each trireme. A colored circle painted in red ochre represented the iris. The eyes were fixed on either side of the prow. Athenians believed that these eyes allowed the ship to find a safe passage through the sea, completing the magical creation of a living thing from inanimate materials. In Greek terminology, the projecting ends of the transverse beam above the eyes were the ship’s ears, and the yardarms were its horns; the sail and banks of oars were its wings, and the grappling hooks were its iron hands.

Blacksmiths fashioned a pair of iron anchors for each trireme, to be slung on either side of the bow. They would prevent the ship from swinging while its stern was grounded on the beach. Tanners and leatherworkers provided the tubular sleeves that waterproofed the lower oar ports. From the same workshops came the side screens of hide for the rowing frames. Pads of sheepskin would enable the trireme’s oarsmen to work their legs as they rowed, thus adding to the power of each stroke.

Finally goldsmiths gilded the figurehead of Athena that would identify each ship as a trireme of Athens. The goddess wore a helmet as well as the famous breastplate or aegis adorned with the head of Medusa, the gorgon that could turn a mortal to stone with a single glance. As patron deity of arts and crafts, a goddess of wisdom and also of war, Athena had been presiding over the entire project from beginning to end.

From the mines of Laurium the silver had flowed through the city’s mint, where it was transformed into the coins that bore the emblems of Athena. Then as Themistocles had planned, the river of silver broke into a hundred separate streams, passing through the hands of the wealthy citizens who organized the great shipbuilding campaign. During the months of shipbuilding the silver was disbursed to all those workers, from loggers to shipwrights to bronzesmiths, whose efforts made Themistocles’ vision a reality. In the end, the money returned to many of the same citizens who had voted to give up their ten drachmas for the common good. By the time one hundred new triremes gleamed in the sunlight at Phaleron Bay, the Athenians were already a changed people. In the great contest that lay ahead, as they hazarded their new ships and their very existence in the cause of freedom, their sense of common purpose would grow stronger with every trial and danger.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!